A Practical Approach to Reducing (Unhelpful) Stress

Oct 10, 2023

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By guest contributor Josh Froc from Work to Wellness

If trying to work harder or working less hasn't landed you the stress-reducing effects you hoped for, this article is for you. For almost everyone, being stressed doesn't feel good, and we want less stress – but as wonderful as it is, the world of real estate is stressful.  

Being results-oriented and genuinely caring about clients means that sometimes REALTORS® stress about the never-ending to-do list and juggling our well-being in a challenging market. 

How much time do you spend feeling like that? What could you be doing instead if you could get back most of the time you spend worrying?  

A big portion of mental energy gets wasted worrying about things that aren’t helpful and don’t create change. In this article, you will find a simple tool to help you get that time and energy back. 

Helpful vs. Unhelpful Stress

Many of us stress about the same things over and over. Some things are worth worrying about because that stress leads us to do something about them, to solve the underlying problem. We'll call this “helpful stress.” 

Many other things are not worth stressing about because we can't (or shouldn't) do anything about them; they are not in our control, and worrying about them doesn't help us. We'll call this “unhelpful stress.” 

As you'll soon see, this stress can sabotage our efforts to deal with and learn from the helpful stress. It's been well established that those who focus on helpful stress (things you can control) typically do better from a mental health perspective than those who focus on unhelpful stress (things outside of their control).  

You can try it for yourself. 

Here is a simple exercise to help you spend more time on what you can control and regain the time and energy wasted on things you can't control. 

The Two Buckets Tool

This tool involves putting everything that stresses us out into two buckets.  

Bucket one is for things that are helpful to stress about (usually about 20 per cent of stressors) because that stress alerts us to something important we can do now to reduce future stress or improve our stress management. 

Bucket two is for things that are not helpful to stress about (usually about 80 per cent of stressors) – either because there is nothing we can do about it right now (out of our control) or because it's not something we want to take immediate action on. 

This tool is based on the assumptions that: 

  1. Approximately 80 per cent of the things you stress about probably cause more harm than good, 
  1. The remaining 20 per cent of the things you stress about are probably worth stressing about, and 
  1. Within the 20 per cent, extra time and energy are spent worrying about the same things over and over. 

When we get stressed, our nervous system mobilizes resources to help us survive. Part of this shift involves inhibition of our prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that helps us plan, make decisions, and think rationally. Using this tool we can decide ahead of time (before we get stressed) what is worth worrying about, and what to do about those stressors. By deciding from a calm, clear-headed place how to deal with stressors before they arise, we can give ourselves the tools to handle situations better and with much less stress when they do occur.  

If you've decided ahead of time how to respond to stress, then when a stressor shows up, and your (stressed) mind tries to convince you that you need to be very worried – you can likely recognize this thought and say "hey, I knew you were going to show up, what took you so long! I already have a plan for you!" With this awareness comes the power to stress yourself out significantly less and weaken the habit of stressing over time. 

The Process

Step 1

Pick a time in your day when you are most calm and productive. (For many people, this is first thing in the morning, before checking emails and social media).   

Step 2

List all the things you are likely to stress about that day. (Hint: If you're looking for inspiration, think about the things that have stressed you in the past!).

Step 2 (Alternative)

At the end of the day, list the things that caused you stress that day.   

Step 3

Go through the list and label each item as "helpful stress" (Bucket one) or "unhelpful stress" (Bucket two). Here's an example: 

You make a list, and one of the stressors on your list is: “The photographer called, and they need me to call them back ASAP.” 

The next step is categorizing this as ‘Bucket one’ (helpful stress) or ‘Bucket two’ (unhelpful stress). 

For this example let’s say you choose: Bucket one – “This is important I've got a house to list soon!” 

Now it’s time to “decide ahead of time” – this is where you choose what you'd like to do when this situation arises. When making that decision, ask yourself: what can I do about it, and what do I want to do about it? It might also be helpful to ask yourself, “Is this something that happens often?”  

With this reasoning, you can decide to stop whatever else you’re doing and call ASAP. Or you could choose to put two 15-minute slots in your calendar each day to "call people back and address any emergencies."  

Then, when it happens, rather than having to make a decision when you’re stressed and then worrying if you made the right decision… you can know you made a high-quality decision from a calm place when your brain was functional; it makes it much easier to deal with the consequences, no matter how you respond.  

The main lesson here is to decide from a calm and collected place. Using this method, you can make higher-quality decisions. You’ll find that a lot of the things you stress about now are not actually helpful, freeing you up to stop stressing about them (gradually, over time, as the habit fades). 

How Can I Apply This Tool?

You can use the two-buckets tool to perform a stress audit. There are three options for you below based on how much time you want to apply to this and how you want to divide that time. Whether you choose one or none of them (and decide to run with your own ideas), you'll likely end up making a list.  

Tools like the wellness wheel (below) can help you with the stress audit by organizing your thinking into different "life areas.” This can help you more quickly think of the things that stress you out and categorize them to remember them more easily. 

Here are three practical examples of how this tool could be applied:

Monthly Stress Audit (15-20 minutes per month)

Rate your stress on a scale of 1-5, one being the lowest and 5 the highest level. Ask yourself these questions when rating your stress level: 

  • What are all the stressful thoughts you can think of that have been around these past couple of days or weeks?  
  • What topics or areas of your life stress you out, and what are the thoughts associated with them?  

Just by writing down this list, you might see some patterns you weren't aware of, and it will help make it easier to recognize when those stressors come up, to automatically respond better. It also may provide some peace of mind to see it on paper. 

Then, circle the ones that you can actually control or that stressing about could actually help make the stressor go away. You will likely find that most things being stressed about are costing you much more mental energy and stress than they're saving. Do this once at the end of each month. Over each quarter, you can hopefully see that your stressors have been changing.

The Daily Stress Audit (One minute per day)

Each day, spend one minute and write down whatever is stressing you out right now. This is best done throughout your day when you are likely stressed out. It serves as a pattern disruption and will also help catch a snapshot of the stressful thoughts when they are fresh! It doesn't utilize the whole two-bucket tool – but this is a practical, easy piece to fit into a busy schedule and can eventually be turned into a routine. One way to make this easier is to set an alarm to go off mid-day each day as a reminder to write down what is stressing you out. 

Daily Pre-stress Plan (Five minutes per day)

Spend five minutes each morning thinking about “What things am I likely to stress about today?” then ask yourself the following questions: “Which of those stressful thoughts are helpful? Which are things that you can control or that, with effortful action, you can stop from coming up in the future? Which of those things are necessary to stress about?” 

What Next?

Start by applying the easiest strategy (for you) that you can, while still feeling like you're making progress. You should feel progress and a de-stressing effect even the first time you do this activity.  

Building awareness for the things in your life that you can and can't control (or don't want to) will automatically make it easier for you to stay calm in situations that used to stress you out. If you can make this habit stick, even if you're spending 10-15 minutes a month – it can save you a considerable amount of stress and time and ensure you're progressing each month and not getting stuck stressing about the same problems over and over. 

Stress is unavoidable in the 21st century. Reducing stress, removing stressors, and managing the stress we experience is becoming a critical differentiator between those who are successful and happy, and the rest. How does your strategy measure up? 

About Work to Wellness

Josh Froc and Diana Vissers from Work to Wellness will have a special session during the 2023 BCREA Managing Brokers Conference on How to Not Burn Out. The talk will explore scientific strategies to recharge and build resilience, benefiting both managing brokers and REALTORS®. Register for the conference here

The two-bucket tool is part of one of the mental health workshops offered by Work to Wellness: Building Resilience in Times of Stress. If you want more tools like this, you can look for further workshops they provide. If you're interested in booking a workshop for a group of REALTORS® or have any questions, you can email [email protected].  

If you want individual help reducing your stress or using the tool outlined in this article, you can also book your individual stress audit! Click here to book your audit. 

To subscribe to receive BCREA publications such as this one, or to update your email address or current subscriptions, click here.

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